Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What kind of year has it been?

with 2 comments

The author's daughter

Years from now, when I look back at the last twelve months, I suspect that I’ll think of them as two entirely different periods in my life. On a personal level, this may have been the most rewarding year I’ve ever had. I’ve watched my daughter grow from a tiny, demanding lump—she was less than two weeks old last New Year’s Eve—into a miniature person with her own tastes, opinions, and personality. She’s as smart as they come, and more important, she’s healthy and happy, and every day is a source of new discoveries and delights. My wife ended the year on a professional high note: after six years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, she landed an extraordinary new journalism job that I hope to talk about more here soon. Her new gig also allows her to work at home more often, which means that we’re spending more time together now than we have since we were married, and if you’ve met her, you know how lucky I am. The year was also peppered with many small personal satisfactions: I traveled a bit, learned a smidgen of coding, picked up the ukulele again, and experienced some great books, shows, music, and movies, a few of which I hope to discuss in a later post.

On the writing side, the verdict was more mixed, although I’m proud of what I accomplished. I started the year with the rewrite and copy edit of Eternal Empire, my third novel, which appeared in stores in September, a fact that still seems a little surreal—it’s by far the fastest that anything I’ve written has gone from delivery to publication. I also saw the appearance in Italy of Il ladro di relique, the first foreign translation of The Icon Thief, although I haven’t lived up to my resolution to use it to teach myself Italian. It all marked the end of a series of books that I’ve been writing and thinking about for most of the last five years, which stands, in itself, as the conclusion of an important chapter in my life. As far as freelance writing went, it was a quiet year, mostly because I haven’t tried to pitch as many stories as before, although I really liked my Salon piece on the twentieth anniversary of The X-Files. But my proudest moment as a writer was undoubtedly receiving the September issue of Analog and seeing “The Whale God” on the cover. (I’m also lucky enough to have a chance to repeat myself soon: my novelette “Cryptids” will be the cover story of their May 2014 issue, apparently with original art by the great Vincent Di Fate. I can’t wait to see it.)

A year's work

Elsewhere, however, there were small disappointments, or postponements, of the kind that inevitably go along with the good. I spent about six months on a major project, actually a revision of a much earlier novel, that doesn’t look like it’s going to get off the ground, at least not in its current form. The rest of the year was spent working up other ideas that, for various reasons, are still in different stages of incompletion: proposals, outlines, pieces written without a clear market in mind. I’m hoping to have some news to report about one or more of them soon, but for now, for the first time in a long while, I’m closing out the year without anything definite on the horizon. Not that I lack for work—I’m currently researching and outlining a hundred-page sample of a new novel that I’m hoping to shop around in the spring—but it comes without the certainty of a contract, which can be emotionally and artistically draining. In some ways, I was slightly spoiled by working on two books in a row that already had a publisher attached. Going back to writing on spec has required a considerable mental readjustment, and I’m still not all the way there, although when I’m deep in the trenches of a day’s writing, nothing else seems to matter.

And this is pretty much how life as an author tends to look. There are periods of greater and lesser certainty, and if you’re lucky, you’ll spend long stretches in which your greatest problem is delivering a contracted manuscript on deadline. In general, though, you’ll find that much of your career is spent in those dusty middle innings: you’re keeping busy, looking for opportunities as they arise, waiting for the next big project that will snap your life back into focus. When you’re in one phase or the other, it’s hard to imagine life looking any other way, and you begin to forget that reality is messier and less predictable. No matter what else you’ve accomplished, every project requires starting over from scratch: there’s no guarantee that the next book or story or article will get the same reception as the last, which is exciting, but also daunting. That’s the nature of the writing life, which resembles a series of incursions into unexplored territory, some of which leave you standing more or less where you began. What remains, in the end, is the craft itself, the routines and rituals you’ve established to plunge back onto the page every morning, and these become the closest thing you have to a permanent possession. I really have no idea what the next year will bring. But that was always part of the point.

Written by nevalalee

December 31, 2013 at 9:31 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The title of this post is a Sorkin reference, right? And congratulations on what sounds like a year well spent. There aren’t a lot of renaissance men left in the world these days. Don’t stop playing that ukulele!

    Alex Varanese

    January 12, 2014 at 3:02 am

  2. Yep, definitely a Sorkin reference—getting through the first few seasons of The West Wing for the first time was another of the year’s accomplishments! And thanks for the kind words. The older I get, the more I start to realize that being a Renaissance man is less interesting than learning how to do one thing well…


    January 13, 2014 at 11:00 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: